First: a confession
I have few regrets in life, but the ones I do have burn strongly. I’d like to talk about one here.
A few years ago, I was working with a company and having a conversation with the CEO of that company when he made a racist comment. It was just the two of us talking. What he said was so unreasonable and it was over so quickly that I just didn’t react. My immediate temptation was to simply doubt what I had heard. Surely nobody would be so blatant. The risks were so high for him. What if more people had overheard? What if I had taken instant and violent offence? What if we were somehow being recorded? Also, I think that the very idea he was conveying - that the existence of people with skin colours other than white was a matter to be remarked upon and satirised - was so alien to me that a kind of cognitive dissonance kicked in and internally I tried to find some other way to explain what he had said.
I was also scared. Scared that if I questioned his comment I would bring a whole pile of trouble down upon myself. If I really had misunderstood what he’d said, I could have ended up offending him and jeopardising my career simply because I leapt to the wrong conclusion. So I ended up saying nothing, doing nothing.
Of course, it really was a racist comment. Later it became apparent from closer observation of this man, as well as anecdotal accounts from others, that racial prejudice was my no means the only one he harboured. By all accounts he was not only racist, but sexist and homophobic too.
I am deeply ashamed. Ashamed that I didn’t say anything. Ashamed that I didn’t have the presence of mind and - yes - the courage to just halt the conversation as soon as that red flag popped up, to take a moment to think, and then to say the five words I should have said then and can no longer:
“Wait, what did you say!?”
I know that having it out with that man would probably not have changed his attitude. Perhaps it would have made it more firmly entrenched, but it would have meant something to me to reaffirm what I believe is right and wrong and, had I just said something, I wouldn’t be left with this deep feeling of regret now, regardless of what the outcome at the time might have been.
So to the (albeit unwitting) targets of his bigotry that day, to all those who may have been affected by his bigotry before or afterwards, to all those who may rightly feel indirectly injured and offended by the fact that he was able to express his odious views unchecked and not least to myself - I am so sorry.
(Side note: as far as I know, the person in question is no longer in a position of authority, certainly he isn’t working for the same company any more)
Why I am writing this now
I have been torn recently, agonising over whether I should re-post a black square on Instagram, in solidarity with the #blackouttuesday idea and #blm more generally.
I think #blackouttuesday was a really clever idea - that we should basically halt business as usual on social media to make the point that the world needs to stop and take note of what is really happening. However, one problem I have with the way these viral movement work is that there is so much emphasis on symbology and slogans that it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. How do I know when I post a black square that I am really expressing the same thoughts and feelings as the next person who posts a black square? In a related sense, posting or reposting a symbol or hashtag feels a little bit too easy sometimes.
But I also felt uncomfortable about doing nothing at all. After all, as my example above shows, doing nothing at all can so easily make a person complicit. Indeed, that’s one of the important points that this movement is trying so hard to stress.
That’s when the idea struck me that I should try and write down how I felt. I’ve been writing quite a lot recently under lockdown, and it makes sense to be able to use my passion for words to say more than I feel I can do simply reiterating someone else’s symbology.
That said, I feel like a really powerful part of expressing solidarity is the sense of intent - of commitment to try harder, to be better, to be braver.
With all that in mind, I’d like to publicly make a set of pledges for how I intend to do my little bit countering the evil of prejudice, both personally and professionally.
My personal pledges
- I pledge to try my hardest to treat everyone I meet with dignity - regardless of race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, nationality, disability or any other factor.
- I pledge to try to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about the people around me, even when those assumptions might appear to be made in good faith or ultimately rooted in compassion.
- I pledge to try to listen to what people are saying - not just what I want to hear; and to try to see people as they are - not just want I want to see, even if that makes me uncomfortable.
- I pledge to try to be careful with my language, to be mindful of the unanticipated consequences of the words that I use carelessly.
- I pledge to try to act with courage where I see wrongs, to speak out against unfairness, cruelty or inequality where I see it, even in situations where there may be some personal risk to me.
My professional pledges
- As a leader, I pledge to take responsibility for how people around me are treated by others. To protect those in need of protection, and to correct those in need of correction, even if they are apparently more powerful than me.
- As a hirer, I pledge to give people equal opportunities, and to see past aspects other than their ability to do the job and integrate with the team.
- As a builder of teams, I pledge to favour balance over bias; to favour plurality over singularity; and to favour tolerance over division and fear. Where this balance is wrong, I pledge not to be afraid of taking bold and decisive steps to fix it.
- As a member of a professional community, I pledge to work hard towards making that community a fair and inclusive place for all. To not only set an example to others, but to use my position to actively encourage others to positive action.
- As an educator, I pledge to not only limit the scope of my teaching to narrow practical, matters but to emphasise the fact that fairness, justice, tolerance and world citizenship are just as important to personal and professional development as technical skills. I will not baulk at educating people about these matters, even when not directed to; and I will continue to educate myself, since this is a virtuous cycle which never ends.
I doubt I will be able live up to my own expectations perfectly. I have failed in the past, and I will fail again; but I hope that, with the help of movements like #blm, and the support - and occasionally forgiveness - of my fellow human beings, I will be able to make some small difference to right these wrongs.